Introduction by Amy Stewart
For two months I occupied an apartment next door to the offices of Tin House, the publisher of this book. I promised to pour the editors a drink if they ever came by after work, and sometimes they did. Because I was living there temporarily, I didn’t have a well-stocked bar, so I gave them their choice of an old-fashioned or a glass of straight whiskey. I think I served them pretzels once, and another time they got almonds. I never had enough chairs. You might think I wasn’t much of a hostess, but Virginia Elliott and Phil Stong would have approved.
Let’s imagine Virginia and Phil as That Couple Upstairs. You know the type. They never issue party invitations, but most nights people seem to turn up anyway. From their fire escape comes laughter and cigarette smoke and the faint clatter of ice cubes against glass. Sometimes one of them calls down to the delicatessen for a carton of orange juice or a can of sardines, but otherwise they seem to make no actual preparations for their parties. They know that people will drink whatever’s on hand and eat any food set before them, even saltines spread with butter and toasted in the oven (see p. 46).
Why are Virginia and Phil so unconcerned about the state of their liquor cabinet or the quality of their canapés? Because they are Prohibition-era hosts, and as such they have far more practical matters to attend to. Acquiring any alcohol at all takes some resourcefulness. And after the stock market crash (this book was first published in 1930), even the most affluent hosts must cut back on the caviar. Pretzels and almonds? Our authors would consider that a fine spread.
Let’s also consider the challenges of publishing a cocktail book while the National Prohibition Act, informally called the Volstead Act, was still in effect. Prohibition did not just ban the sale of alcohol; it banned the publication of information about alcohol as well. Sections 17 and 18 of the act made it illegal to advertise the method or means by which alcohol might be obtained or prepared. Even booksellers were in jeopardy: it was a crime to “sell or possess for sale any . . . formula, direction, or recipe” that could be used in the unlawful manufacture of alcohol. The law created a great deal of confusion and outrage: in 1926, an anti-Prohibition group wrote to Attorney General John Sargent asking if it would be lawful to read George Washington’s beer recipe at a dinner in honor of the president’s birthday, strictly for historical purposes. (Sargent refused to rule on the question.) What chance did a cocktail book have of surviving legal scrutiny?
In fact, the long shadow of the Volstead Act does fall across the pages of this book. In their opening remarks the authors make it clear that they recommend their drinks be mixed only with “non-alcoholic” gin, scotch, rye, corn, and applejack. The “Commissary,” a list of supplies they advise keeping on hand for cocktail parties, includes no spirits at all.
And in all but the first printing of Shake ’Em Up, one page has been removed and replaced with this terse announcement: “This Page Removed at the request of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.” It gives me great delight to report that your humble researcher has located the missing page in one of the few surviving first editions of the book, and that the authors’ recipe for homemade “non-alcoholic gin” has been restored to its rightful location at the beginning of a section called “Household Hints.”
Now, about the drinks. You’ll notice that these are not complex recipes burdened with exotic or handcrafted ingredients. If you’re in the habit of frequenting bars that claim to serve Prohibition-era cocktails, you might be surprised to learn that Virginia and Phil got by with little more than canned grapefruit juice and ginger ale to enliven their “non-alcoholic” alcohol. The recipes are simple, familiar, and unpretentious. The ingredients can be had at any corner liquor store on a modest budget. The measurements are imprecise, and no technique is required beyond a good stir. You will find no dandelion-burdock bitters, flaming orange peels, or Olympic-style shaking here.
The food, as I’ve mentioned, is so simple that you might call it artless: Virginia and Phil’s guests were satisfied with Velveeta sandwiches seasoned with catsup, toasted potato chips with chutney, and cream cheese spread on white bread and topped with chopped peanuts and pickles. Most ingredients could be stored indefinitely in the pantry and simply tossed at the guests when they started to grumble.
In fact, Shake ’Em Up is less a recipe collection and more a survival guide for hosts. Our authors assume that you don’t just open your doors once a year for an extravagant party; rather that, like them, you suffer an endless parade of thirsty and ill-behaved guests without whom life would be unbearably dull. The primary aim of this book is to teach you how to handle those people. They’ll advise you on the care of “tender young things, who have just been taken off stick candy” and don’t know how to enjoy a proper adult drink: just gather up crème de menthe or crème de cocoa, “make them up some kind of a mess of it and push them under the piano to suck on it.” For the guest who “wants to drink all the liquor he can hold and then pour any possible surplus in his hair,” they suggest a cheap mixture of “non-alcoholic” alcohol, water, gin flavoring, and tabasco.
Phil and Virginia know how to shore up intoxicated guests who are called suddenly away to preach a sermon or deliver a speech. For guests who show up late and realize they are two or three cocktails behind the rest of the party, they prescribe hot drinks. “Heat acts on the villi and such things like an air-mail stamp,” they pronounce with scientific authority. Hangover cures run the gamut from a cup of milk to Blowing the Brains Out. And they wisely furnish blank pages at the end for recipes and “Idiosyncrasies of Your Friends.” (The real reason for the blank pages is that books are most economically printed in signatures of sixteen pages each, and they needed to fill eighty pages to round out five full signatures, but never mind.)
So who are these geniuses, these Nick and Nora types who speak to us from a bygone age in which guests were content with a glass of gin and orange juice and a jar of olives? Here’s what we know: Virginia Elliott, born Helen Virginia Fulton in Ohio in 1896, married architect Lawrence Elliott in 1921. They were living in Manhattan when her first book, Shake ’Em Up, was published in 1930, but by 1932 they had divorced. Her next book, published in 1933, was Quiet Drinking; A Book of Beer, Wines & Cocktails and What to Serve with Them. In 1934 she and Robert Howard Jones, an architect she would marry in 1936, coauthored a book called Soups and Sauces. Jones died sometime before 1962, and Elliott lived on New York’s Upper East Side until her death in 1977.
It’s not clear how she met her coauthor Philip Duffield Stong, but we do know that they were both living in Manhattan and working as freelance writers at the time. Stong, born in Iowa in 1899, trained as a journalist and worked for the Associated Press as well as other newspapers and magazines. He interviewed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti just before their execution in 1927, recording what would become a controversial quote about their death sentence: “Our words—our lives—our pains—nothing! The taking of our lives—the lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler—all! The last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph.”
Shake ’Em Up was Stong’s first book, but shortly after its publication he was at work on the novel that would make him famous: State Fair. The book was adapted into a movie starring Will Rogers and another starring Pat Boone and Bobby Darin, as well as a 1945 musical with a Rodgers and Hammerstein score. He went on to write a few dozen novels for adults and children, but none were as popular as State Fair. He and his wife, novelist Virginia Swain Stong, lived comfortably in Manhattan and later in Connecticut, boarding a cruise ship for the tropics every few years until his death in 1957 at the age of fifty-eight.
I’m delighted that we’ve been able to resurrect Shake ’Em Up some eighty-three years after its original publication for a new generation of cocktail aficionados. If you’ve never served gin and hot water to a guest, or smeared equal parts Brie and butter on a saltine and called that an appetizer, or taken a glass of rye and grapefruit juice before breakfast, you haven’t truly experienced Prohibition-era living. Let Virginia and Phil show you the way.